Michigan needs direct action to ban paying for petition signatures

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it” -- Benjamin Franklin.

The story goes that Franklin, at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was asked, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” 

His answer was perfectly relevant to the political concerns of the 18th century, a world in which hereditary monarchies were the prevailing form of government. Our Founders, however, opted for a democratic republic -- and laid out the foundations of what was then a radically new structure in our Constitution.

Today, people are again debating over what kind of government to have. And while the major issue is different, it is just as important. Today, the talk is about the distinction between a republic -- in which elected representatives of the people make the decisions necessary to govern -- and a direct democracy, in which many issues are left up to a direct vote of the people.

For many years, we have automatically referred to our  government as a “democracy.” But that one word doesn’t tell us what the speaker really means. Throughout the two and a quarter centuries since our Constitution was adopted, the trend in America has been toward increasingly direct democracy.

Members of the House of Representatives always have been elected directly by popular vote. But we’ve only been electing U.S. senators since the Constitution was amended to allow us to do so in 1913.

Presidents are still technically elected indirectly, through the Electoral College. But the once-independent electors now pretty much always follow the popular vote results from their states.

The changes in the way we pick senators and presidents were arguably for the better. But the tendency to make laws by statewide votes on ballot proposals has been much more destructive.

Some states, notably California, have seen state policy-making hobbled, year after year, by the enormous number of state ballot propositions, some of which contradict each other.

This has been made worse because it has become almost ridiculously easy to get a proposition on the ballot. I am far from alone in thinking referenda-run-amok is the best argument for preferring a “republic” to a “direct democracy.”

Ominously, this seems to be happening here. Michigan, too, has a large number of ballot proposals kicking around. Backers of no less than seven proposals have collected the signatures required to get their respective proposals on the ballot.

Many of these are currently tied up in the courts, and it's not my intention here to discuss the merits of any of them. What concerns me more is the increasing tendency to bypass our established governing institutions to improperly inject into the state constitution propositions that, at heart, are special interest political pleadings, such as requiring a public vote before building an international bridge.

Others are outright appeals to economic self-interest -- the proposal to build eight more gambling casinos obviously benefits the folks who would own the designated properties.

Constitutional changes get on the ballot by filing supporting signatures, a process intended to demonstrate adequate public support to justify putting a measure on the ballot. (The number of valid signatures required is equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor at the most recent election – or 322,609 signatures this time.)

The idea was to limit statewide votes to those rare issues that had massive citizen support. But, in today’s world, special interests pay canvassers to collect signatures, so the only thing the numbers now indicate is the relative wealth of the sponsoring groups.

For the record, I should add that the vote on the emergency manager law is different. This is a referendum to decide the fate of a law passed by the Legislature last year that is fiercely opposed by many labor unions. Unlike the others, this is not a constitutional amendment, nor were signatures solicited by paid circulators.

Rich Robinson, who heads the watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told Bridge Magazine nearly $30 million has been raised and $20 million already spent in support of various statewide ballot proposals. Robinson thinks this is a record.

“Voters should understand that, for the most part, ballot initiatives are anything but grass-roots democracy. Mostly, they are driven by an interest group with very deep pockets facing off against opposing interest groups with very deep pockets,” he said.

The net result of this process, of course, is the very best (or perhaps worst) government that money can buy.

And it is also something utterly unforeseen by Benjamin Franklin and the framers of our Constitution, not to mention folks who participated in Michigan’s last constitutional convention in 1961-62.

According to a one article last week, “Con-Con” delegates intended that signature drives be mounted by common citizens. There was no discussion of petition solicitors “descending on the state like a bunch of locusts,” former delegate Eugene Wanger said.

The tragedy is that what we have now in Michigan is neither democracy nor a republican form of government. Instead, in many respects, we have an oligarchy of deep-pocketed special interests.

So what can we do about it?

Simple. Pass a statute that forbids anyone to pay solicitors to circulate petitions and collecting signatures for ballot proposals. (Such laws have had a mixed record of success legally, with federal courts rejecting some state efforts and clearing others, according to ballotpedia.org.)

Will our Legislature have the guts to pass something so simple and sensible, that cuts the influence of money and returns the important process of amending our state constitution to ordinary citizens? I hope so, but don’t hold your breath.

Instead, if you agree, make your voice heard.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Tue, 08/28/2012 - 10:02am
"Simple. Pass a statute that forbids anyone to pay solicitors to circulate petitions and collecting signatures for ballot proposals" Are we so sure this is simple? Cold this lend itself to over weight the impact of orgainzations with non paid members being encourage to be active in elections? As an example over the years haven't the Unions in Michgian been vary active in recruiting an placing members in particular Party activities or on particular issue campaigns. For the 'Simple' Mr. Power seems so quick to overlook the obvious, how convenient to keep it simple. "Will our Legislature have the guts to pass something so simple and sensible, that cuts the influence of money and returns the important process of amending our state constitution to ordinary citizens? I hope so, but don’t hold your breath." After the mention in the article about the financial interests with some of the ballot issues it is suproising that Mr. Power can only see the influence of money on the campaigns to place such issue on the ballot. I wonder if Mr. Power can look past the 'money' aspect and look for other means to raise the threshold for ballot Amendments, to better balance the publics capacity to work within the system but not be limited by their elected officials? "I hope so, but don’t hold your breath."
Wed, 08/29/2012 - 10:50am
If you volunteer your free time to help gather signatures, and are not being paid directly based on how many signatures you turn in, that is a measure of your commitment to the cause. If a ballot initiative only qualifies because a special interest spends $100K or more to a contractor to deliver 322,000 signatures...what part of that is grassroots or citizen-driven? True, unions are great at organizing and mobilizing its members -- it's their reason to exist in the first place, after all. But the same is true of the churches who organized and mobilized parishioners to collect signatures to deny benefits to same-sex partners of public employees, or to overturn affirmative action in the State of Michigan. Volunteers are volunteers, is what I'm saying. A final note: One of the most serious charges leveled at ACORN back when it existed was that local chapters often hired unemployed or homeless people to register voters, paying them a small amount for each completed form turned in. If this practice was wrong for ACORN, how can it be right for those who want to open new casinos, or the Odious Billionaire Matty Moroun?
Mike R
Wed, 08/29/2012 - 5:58pm
Well said, Helzapoppn.
Sun, 09/02/2012 - 2:42pm
I wonder what the Mr. Power and others out cry would be if employers did the same as Unions andstrongly encourage their members/employee to be active in particular movements.
Nancy Shiffler
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 1:19pm
In a world where election campaign dollars are identified as "free speech," should this be treated any differently? When legislatures and judgeships are being bought by special interest money, how do citizen groups fight back? I don't much like the process of paid signature collectors either, especially when you see them carrying clipboards for 4 or 5 different causes at the same time. On the other hand, 322,000 signatures is a lot to collect even for relatively large grass roots volunteer groups.
Mike R
Wed, 08/29/2012 - 6:04pm
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Power. In addition, we may want to consider a statute that sets more specific criteria for the Board of Canvassers and Court of Appeals to use in determining whether a ballot proposal is sufficiently descriptive and fairly worded to apprise the voter of not only its intent, but its effects. The current law, both statutory and case, is vague enough so that the party-line votes of the Canvassers nearly always end up in the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, rendering the Board meaningless as a gatekeeper.
Big D
Sun, 09/02/2012 - 4:46pm
Maybe the ballot has to limit a proposal to 100 words or less, but if you're going to sign a petition for something, you should have to sign a legally-binding affidavit attesting that you have read the entire proposal in all its detail, and completely understand it. i.e. You can't be a "Nancy Pelosi".
Wed, 01/16/2013 - 3:00pm
I am a professional petition consultant and it pays very good money and its a good job. Without us petitions wouldnt make it as far as they do. Nobody would put the time in that my fellow consultants and I do without getting paid. I used to put in 70 hours a week 10 hour days 7 days a week and i wouldnt take a day off. I beat the pavement everyday to get signatures and it would highly piss me off and plenty of other to ban paying for petition signatures